I love cities. I can’t think of any city I’ve visited in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world I wouldn’t gladly explore again. I can’t get enough of the huge parks that stretch endlessly, sometimes for many miles along waterfronts or right in the middle of town. Landmarks and museums await and there’s always a surprise around the next corner. Each time I go back to Chicago, my hometown, I happily ride the subway and tramp through one of my old neighborhoods to see what’s new—and what’s not. I get that ol’ feeling walking past Wrigley Field, and I always know I’m never more than a couple of minutes away from a great cup of coffee and something luscious to go with it.
|A view of Chicago from Lincoln Park|
So, if I love cityscapes so much, why do I write stories set in small towns? Well, the easiest answer is that I love them, too. When I first moved away from Chicago it was to the coast of Maine, into a rental house on an island with a year-round population of around 250. The island was magical—last fall I visited friends there and it’s still just as wonderful. Over the years, I lived in many more such towns and a few smaller cities.
As sure as a story idea comes to me, the environment appears, too, fully formed. My fictional small towns, sometimes touristy places, are usually on a lake, ocean, or river. (But I’m just as happy to read stories set in mountains, deserts, and prairie towns.) Like Two Moon Bay, where GIRL IN THE SPOTLIGHT and two additional books are set, my towns are like cities in miniature. They’re my creations, so they follow my rules.
Two Moon Bay has sidewalks and bike paths, a favorite coffeehouse, and a waterfront park. In no time, I felt right at home in this place had appeared to me. My characters are a mix of longtime residents and newcomers discovering the environment for first time. They’re expandable, too, these towns I design. In GIRL IN THE SPOTLIGHT, I needed a skating rink, but in the other two books, boats and a marina play a big role. Other features, the Silver Moon Winery being one, don’t have specific parts to play, but are reliable landmarks in each story and help define the town.
The idea of creating a contemporary fictional city of several million is daunting, and using a real one requires a certain level of accuracy—a demand that can’t be ignored. (In the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” the pair supposedly left the University of Chicago to drive to New York, but every Chicagoan knew from the position of the famous Hancock building behind them, they were driving straight to Wisconsin! Did the location scouts think we wouldn’t notice?) In fictional small towns, we authors define accuracy. The street I live on in my real small town, which is essentially adjacent to Green Bay, Wisconsin, doesn’t have a sidewalk, a flaw, as far as I’m concerned. But the characters inhabiting my fictional towns, even if they’re islands, can always count on a sidewalk or footpath.
In the small town environments we create, we often set up situations that allow readers to quickly identify who has roots in the town, shallow or deep. In some cases, we have prominent families or well-known individuals with connections to each other, not always pleasant ones. Characters may have overlapping histories, which makes it difficult to disappear without leaving town altogether. I especially like my small towns because they are both manageable and filled with possibilities. Where else but in storytelling do we have the freedom to create and define a complete environment in such detail?
|Small town characters and small town settings inspire my writing.|
Some authors and readers might include the idea of small-town values, but having lived in communities of all sizes over a fairly long lifetime so far, I don’t see a difference in the values of city-dwellers and small-towners. People can be equally kind or rude, generous or greedy, loving or hateful, no matter where they live. My choice of locations is more about me than about any particular human trait. I can picture the characters in my stories getting into messes and solving their problems and going after their dreams in a lovely little town I know intimately, a place that on some level, I really do live in.
Virginia McCullough’s Heartwarming debut, GIRL IN THE SPOTLIGHT, is due for release in June 2017, and is Book 1 of her Two Moon Bay series. She has had a long career as a ghostwriter and nonfiction book author, and has had the privilege of living in six states and the U.S.V.I. When not writing, she can be seen walking on nearby trails—or maybe packing her car for her next road trip. Sign up for her newsletter at, www.virginiamccullough.com